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Mental Health-Related Absences Up 33% in 2023

Close-up photo of a person's hands at a therapy session.

Mental health-related leaves of absence are surging in the workplace, new data finds, up 33 percent in 2023 over 2022—analysis indicating that mental health pressures among employees show no signs of relenting.

Further, employee leaves of absence for mental health issues are up a whopping 300 percent from 2017 to 2023, according to the analysis out last week from mental health services provider ComPsych. A leave of absence, ComPsych said, can vary from a few days to weeks.

Female employees and younger workers, in particular, are driving the surge. In 2023, 69 percent of mental health-related leaves of absence were taken by women. Of these, a third (33 percent) were taken by Millennial women, followed by Gen X women who accounted for 30 percent of mental health-related leaves.

[SHRM Resource Hub Page: Mental Health]

Although the data is significant for the workplace, Richard Chaifetz, founder, CEO and chairman of ComPsych, said it’s not shocking considering the series of stressful occurrences over the past few years.

“Given the tumultuous events of the past few years—with COVID, ongoing international conflicts, civil unrest and a volatile economy—it’s not surprising to see that mental health-related leaves of absence are up,” he said. Meanwhile, he added, employees are dealing with their own sets of individual stressors, from caregiving and parenting challenges to work and financial pressures.

Indeed, the ComPsych data is just the latest to indicate that employee mental health has worsened in recent years.

Well over half of employees (57 percent) are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout, according to a recent report from Aflac, while a Mercer survey found that 67 percent of employers consider depression and anxiety a concern at work, with 21 percent citing it as a serious concern. Sixty-eight percent said job-related stress is a concern, and 59 percent cited financial stress. Other research has found that inflation, in particular, is taking a toll on employee mental health.

Although mental health leaves of absence can create problems for employers when it comes to managing work, it can be a good sign that employees are more cognizant of prioritizing their mental health, Chaifetz said.

“During the pandemic, more people became aware of options that are available if they need to take time away from work, and there was increased national conversation about mental health, helping to reduce stigmas,” he said. “All of this plays a role in the increase we’re seeing.”

Employer Action

Mental health, already a topic of significance, will only be more important during a contentious election year, experts said.

“Mental and emotional wellness will be a massive topic, especially as we’re going into an election year,” said Aflac CHRO Jeri Hawthorne. “People tend to be much more polarized in their views. Maybe five or 10 years ago, people could just disagree on and have different perspectives on certain topics, but now it’s become much more polarized and sometimes even aggressive. Mental health—and areas around helping reduce stress and improve emotional wellness—will be a massive focus for the next year.”

[See also: Meeting Mental Health Needs Across Generations]

Although more employers have beefed up mental health support recently—Mercer, for instance, in late 2023 found that 94 percent of large employers (500 or more employees) reported that they have strengthened their coverage for mental health care, increased support, or put in place new programs or systems to help in the last three years—more work appears to be needed.

Chaifetz said HR teams should invest in mental health resources and support for all employees but may benefit from focusing on female and younger employees (those who took the bulk of mental health-related absences in 2023) and the challenges they face, including parenting and caregiving.

“For organizations, there’s an opportunity right now to address the root cause of these absences by offering integrated behavioral health programs, including preventative care to support those who are struggling with mental health challenges,” he said, adding that employers will also reap the benefits.

“Our book of business clearly shows that when employee mental health is invested in up front, absenteeism is reduced, as well as presenteeism, or lost productivity when a person isn’t able to perform at optimal levels.”


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